The iPhone Giant Is Making a Statement in This David v. Goliath Case
SMITH BRAIN TRUST – For Apple, it seems the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and perhaps neither does the pear.
This week, the iPhone maker filed a lawsuit against Prepear, a recipe and meal-planning app, over its request to trademark its minimalistic pear-shaped logo.
With the suit, the table is set for another David versus Goliath case – with Apple looking to make a statement, says Maryland Smith’s Henry C. Boyd III.
“Even without Prepear necessarily intending to copy or deceive the marketplace with their branding, Apple still wants to put the world on notice and make sure that no one tries to mimic them,” says Boyd, clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
In trademark disputes like these, the onus is on a plaintiff to establish the likelihood of confusion between the icons, Boyd says. It is the court’s role to determine the defendant’s intent in adopting the mark. If intent can be shown, then it creates a presumption of infringement. But proving intent, Boyd says, is difficult and can make for a long legal battle.
In trademark disputes, the court considers other elements that give rise to marketplace confusion. For instance, the degree of similarity between logos in terms of appearance, color and meaning also serves as an important determinant, Boyd says. In the not-so-distant past, the court has used side-by-side assessments of logos to highlight areas of equivalence.
“It was flawed reasoning because the typical consumer rarely sees logos grouped together like that while they are shopping,” says Boyd. “In reality, it’s never a side-by-side comparison and the courts have moved away from it over time.”
Similarity of goods and services, in this case and others like it, becomes another key consideration, Boyd says. Apple is a global behemoth, with its own line of tech gadgets, its own stores and a valuation that’s larger than the annual GDP of most countries. Meanwhile, Prepear is a small meal-planning app that allows food bloggers and others to share recipes and earn money from page views.
“If you think about commerce and whether you could even find these products in the same store, the answer is no,” says Boyd. “It would be hard to imagine Apple would lose any revenue or have its reputation suffer from Prepear – and the court will likely take notice of that.”
In the court of public opinion, smaller entities may question the merits of this case, Boyd says, but that’s how the game is played. He recalls a previous attempt by General Mills to trademark its recognizable Cheerios “yellow,” and says the stratagem for bigger companies is to use these lawsuits as a deterrent to preclude rivals from capitalizing on their brand equity.
“Brands evolve over time and they adopt different logos along the way,” says Boyd. “But once established, brands will fight tooth and nail to keep the turf that they’ve claimed for themselves.”
The Apple and Prepear case may eventually come to an end with Apple running the clock on Prepear by indefinitely extending legal proceedings. Regardless, Boyd says it will be interesting to watch.
“Under the Lanham Trademark Act, the notion of brands and trademarks are synonymous, and at the end of the day, it’s how businesses define themselves,” says Boyd.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how all of this unfolds.”
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